Following a 15 hour odyssey that included two delayed flights, one missed connection, an overnight stay in the Vegas airport, $17 lost on the slot machines, and a whole hell of a lot of TCBY frozen yogurt, I am finally back in San Francisco. Amen to 0% humidity. Amen to Poncho Villa Taqueria. Amen to the boys on Castro Beach.
I worked up quite a sweat on the East Coast, so before it dries completely I’d like to post a little project I conjured up while laying low…
[Heads up: while the following post is quite long, it delivers some rather scathing snark-tastic socio-historic commentary couched in a psychogeographic tour. Read on, read on.]
During my first week in the city I took a drive out to the docks, where I once rode my bike to photograph the rusting hulks of decommissioned ships and dying buildings. Mile-high piles of coal and slate tempt the intrepid, and though one swears by the smell of salt and pepper, such is only air broken by industry. I adore this forlorn part of the city.
This time around I found myself not dangling from the piers, but rather poking around an estate sale. From a Tupperware bin filled with randomness, my invitation arrived: A Walking Tour of Historic & Renaissance Baltimore with Entertaining and Educational Vignettes, by Donald T. Fritz.
All maps and tours are the product of judgment. East Berlin was once omitted from maps of the city. Google Earth (and those who programmed its satellites) chose to capture certain geographic areas first, others later. Donald T. Fritz began his tour just below the Inner Harbor in Otterbein, a neighborhood that was seized by the city in the 1970’s as landlords began to simply abandon decaying row homes. As part of the so-called “urban homesteading” project initiated by the city, these homes were sold off for $1 each. This neighborhood—along with the aforementioned Inner Harbor—are absolutely misleading. These are the areas that hotel concierges send tourists to. This is the clown face the city government paints in order to make people feel safe.
So when I read the following warning printed on the first page of the book, just below the map, I realized what Donald T. Fritz was really cautioning his readers against:
“…These areas and the inner harbor are as safe as can be expected in any city. It is advised that you not attempt to walk to any point of interest not numbered. Baltimore is no different than any other city in this respect.”
Mr. Fritz’s map is a simply drawn: black-on-white, numbers in place of buildings. The tour route, however, is traced in a thick red line. Stay on the line, folks. It leads straight up Charles Street and in to historical Mount Vernon. It is safe there.
“History” is also written as a result of choice. Certain histories matter to some, others to others. To be marginally fair, Donald T. Fritz includes additional, somewhat varied points of interest in his tour. But he does so while suggesting that viewers walk up one single path (up Hopkins Place, which veers on to Liberty, across Mount Vernon, down Charles and back to Pratt—i.e. the Inner Harbor.)
Howard Street runs directly parallel to both Hopkins/Liberty and Charles. Two blocks away, in fact. Fritz conspicuously avoided this street. Folks visiting town are often cautioned against drifting into this part of town. Yet this is one of the best streets in Baltimore! So I decided to write a counter-tour, one that focused on both history and the curiosities that make a city what it is. I started where Fritz suggested, and stopped where he stopped. But I veered a few blocks over, and planted my tongue firmly into my cheek before I began…
A Brief Walking Tour of Historical Baltimore
(with Entertaining and Educational Vignettes of Overlooked Places)
By Sarah Hromack
1. Start at the Baltimore Convention Center. It’s located Pratt Street, directly perpendicular to Charles. You won’t be able to miss this huge monstrosity of glass, steel, and white marble. So ignore it.
2. Back away slowly from said Convention Center, crossing back on to the other side of Pratt. This may seem counter intuitive, but chances are you need the extra exercise. Hang a sharp right. You’ll be facing Camden Yards. Ignore that, too, unless you’re a baseball fan or something.
3. Walk two blocks, bypassing equally boring Charles and Hopkins Place. Turn right onto Howard.
4. At the corner of Pratt and Howard, take a gander to the right. This clock tower, the former Bromo Seltzer Building, has been slated for demolition by the city. This mural will soon be dust, sadly. Painted between 1975-76 by the city’s public service employees, it’s one of the most interesting examples the city. Hey, that was around the same time as the Otterbein neighborhood was sold off for a $1 per house. Urban renewal! There’s lots of urban renewal in Baltimore today. Condos, people. Condominiums.
5. Proceed up Howard, because we’re going to follow in the conceptual footsteps of Mr. Fritz and keep true to one street. Caution: watch out for the raised Light Rail platforms. I almost caught some spit, and a dousing of urine is never out of the question, either. Especially once the bars let out.
6. You will pass a healthy variety of stores while traipsing along Howard Street. All together now: BickfordsCityCityZoneYoungWorldJuvenileFurnitureWigsv.s.HairFashionsStarletJunior andMissyClothesGoldenBrothersJewlryStoreValuePlusBeatyLane.
7. Pause for a moment or three at the Rite Aid Pharmacy on the corner of Howard and Lexington. This building once ahoused May’s department store. Now, however, its windows feature an entire photographic history of the neighborhood. Walk back a few paces. Take a look. Learn something. And just ignore those bizarre granite pyramids that block most of the store’s entrance. They’re to ward off loitering and overnighters, not car bombers.
8. Hang a sharpie onto West Lexington; you’ll be facing Lexington Market, so keep walking. Look left on the corner of Lex and North Eutaw. Take note of the Hippodrome Theater, which was built in 1914 and housed most of the acts that came through town. Theater has taken a sharp dive over the past decades; you’ll see other abandoned spaces in the neighborhood. Just remember that Billie Holiday once sang in most of them.
9. PLEASE NOTE: Around this time, people may begin to approach you in order to sell you things. There’s no need to clutch your pocket or fanny pack nervously, or labor under the delusion that said vendor is invisible and/or a criminal. If you don’t want the perfume lady at Macy’s to spray you down, you simply say “no thanks,” right? That same polite-but-firm “no thanks” translates equally in Baltimore. Cool out, OK?
10. Anyway, back to Lexington Market. Pop inside and spend some quality time. Take it all in, because you’re now standing in the best open-air market Baltimore has to offer. (In my opinion, and this tour is all about my opinion so…) Many old-school vendors still hold court here despite the influx of new booths—and central air conditioning, which in itself provides reason enough to visit. Do as I do: nibble delicately on a kielbasa at Polock Johnny’s Polish Sausages. Buy some fish. Have an allergic reaction to soft shell crabs. You’re in Bawlmer, Hon. The ambulance may or may not arrive in time. Deal with it.
11. As you mosey along towards the back of the market, take notice of the abandoned cart sitting on a raised cement platform. You will certainly wonder what, in the name of Jesus H. Christ of Latter Day Saints, this actually is. It’s an Arabber’s cart.
An Arabber, is an independent contractor of sorts who schleps around the city with a horse drawn cart while peddling often, but not always, sub-par vegetables and fruits. This is living Baltimore history, so please patronize an Arabber should you pass one. This particular cart happens to be filled with disused office furniture. But if you ask around, I’m sure someone will sell it to you below cost.
When you feel ready to do so, exit Lexington Market. Turn left while facing the street and proceed up North Eutaw Street toward our final destination. Remember, we’re only going as far north as ‘ole Fritz suggests we travel.
12. Stop at Eutaw and Pierce. You have reached H&H Surplus & Campers Haven. Now this is a truly special building, made obvious by the hideously wonderful mural that blankets its façade. REI and L.L. Bean will fade into distant memories after this visit to H&H. Upstairs, stock up on socks, knives, flashlights, ski gloves, and gas masks. Then proceed to the basement, where the real action takes place.
Warning: Those who have fought in just about any war—WW’s I and II, Korean, Vietnam, Desert Storm, the present day crock of shit—may be acutely reminded of their respective tours of duty. Why? Well, H&H stocks the most complete and utterly bizarre plethora of military surplus gear that I have ever seen. Need Vietnam-era intelligence equipment? No problem. Sailor uniforms? Check. Suspiciously dirty canteens? H&H has you covered. Those of you who aim to cultivate a truly retro outdoor style are also in luck: Old-school frame packs, sleeping bags, and even sweatbands overflow from the cardboard boxes that hold all of this crap. So get lost among the industrial metal shelves. You’ve been searching for the perfect ammunition belt anyway, haven’t you?
Oh, and by the way: The third, fourth, and fifth floors of the building house more than a few artists, and the Whole Gallery occupies the second floor. Many a fine warehouse party has graced the H&H.
13. If you’re truly interested in bronze sculptures held high on granite pedestals, now is the time to cross the street and keep going; you’ll reach Charles in 2 blocks’ time. And don’t feel guilty if you do: Every city has many different histories, and they’re all worth knowing about.